Neglected Voices: The Forgotten Psychological Effects of Korean War Bombings

By | February 19, 2021 | No Comments

A black painted U.S. Air Force Douglas B-26C Invader dropping bombs during the Korean War in 1953. | Image: Wikicommons

Every war is complicated, but the Korean War was more complicated than most. Confusion in the opening weeks of the campaign bled into the autumn. As the North Koreans rolled into Seoul, Syngman Rhee’s state was reconstituting the fury of the counterinsurgencies of 1948, rooting out communists and killing suspected leftists in its own shrinking terrain. In the autumn, the North Koreans became the occupied party, and attempted to preserve the crumbling remnants of their government by calling upon Chinese comrades to intervene in force, extinguishing the embers of southern (and Yankee) governance over the DPRK’s cities and hamlets. Prisoner of war camps became another major ideological and propaganda battleground as the conflict ground down into bloody inertia. As is well known, during the war approximately three million people were killed (ten percent of the total population of the peninsula) and another three million displaced.

In the midst of this metastasized civil war, the minds of individual soldiers and citizens were of course an important prize, treating loyalty and political assignations like disputed territories. Yet little care was taken to consider what today we might group under the category of “mental health.” Without engaging in rank speculation or projection, it seems difficult to argue anything other than that the Korean War left significant psychological scars on the Korean people. Far more than merely being a “product of war,” this anguish has had ongoing effects due to the contention of the Korean War, its links to inter-Korean and international relations today, and censorship of the truth that started during the war and is still difficult to break down. In a new essay for Sino-NK, Imogen Bird looks at the evidence. — Adam Cathcart, Senior Editor

Neglected Voices: The Forgotten Psychological Effects of Korean War Bombings

by Imogen Bird

Trauma studies show that those who experience trauma experience some form of psychological or psychiatric illness. Those with prolonged exposure to trauma experience chronic illness or multiple illnesses of the likes of PTSD, anxiety, depression, irritability and poor concentration. Much of the stigma surrounding this means that the victims are often reticent to share their suffering, though keeping the trauma to themselves and avoiding social contact is a symptom in and of itself.1)Alberta Engelbrecht et al., “The Symptomatology of Psychological Trauma in the Aftermath of War (1945–1980): UK Army Veterans, Civilians and Emergency Responders,” Psychological Medicine 49 (2019): 811-18.

Trauma studies on North Korean refugees resettled in the South show that most of this group of refugees experience some form of psychological pain. Often this stems from experiencing life threatening events in the North or on their journey and/or difficulties in integrating into South Korean life. It manifests itself in feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, much of which is associated with low life satisfaction.2)Subin Park, “Trauma and Depression among North Korean Refugees: The Mediating Effect of Negative Cognition,” International Journal of Environmental and Public Health 15 (2018): 1-10. Social discrimination acts as a barrier to overcoming previous trauma like physical and mental abuse, and creates or exacerbates existing trauma.3)Ibid: 6. North Koreans are discriminated against for their gaps in understanding societal values and gaps in education and language.4)Mee Young Um et al., “Correlates of Depressive Symptoms Among North Korean Refugees Adapting to South Korean Society: The Moderating Role of Perceived,” Social Science and Medicine 131 (2015): 107-13.

It is unsurprising that many do not feel they are able to discuss their trauma, since North Koreans do not want to be marginalised further for their identities and nor would discussing such trauma be easy when their surroundings themselves further aggravate their anxieties. North Koreans also experience adaptation issues, suspicion of the South Korean government stems from a deep rooted suspicion created back home, in turn keeping them from sharing their traumas and adding difficulty to investigating them. Without an open discussion space, knowledge of the roots of their traumas is poor, with in depth studies only really facilitating this.

Kim Jeong-rim in “Madame Freedom,” Seoul, 1956. | Image via Korean Classic Film

There exists an absence in regards to civilian experience in the Korean War, with density of trauma studies based particularly around the more current refugee/defector problem.5)For other refugee studies see Woo-Teak Jeon, Shi-Eun Yu, Young-A Cho and Jin-Sup Eom, “Traumatic Experiences and Mental Health of North Korean Refugees in South Korea,” U.S. National Library of Medicine 5 (2008): 213-20. How can we know the truth of civilian experience in the war without individuals specifically studying this topic and encouraging and promoting the victims to discuss their experiences openly?

As with trauma studies related to refugees, there exists a barrier between trauma and open discussion, but without trying to break this down and understand the pain of civilians in the Korean War, we may never fully know the reality. Like the social discrimination current North Korean refugees experience, those who spoke out about their experiences in the Korean War in the immediate post-war years and thereafter were automatically labelled as “outsiders” and slanderers against the government narrative, in turn they experience similar social discrimination to current North Korean refugees, for instance many struggled to get jobs in the civil service.6)Brendan Wright, “Civil War, Politicide, and the Politics of Memory in South Korea, 1948-1961,” Ph.D thesis, University of British Columbia (2016), 5.

Discussions like these need to promote a space for new oral testimonies, without this, a true understanding of the Korean War may never be fully achievable. We must cross reference testimonies and our fragmentary archival materials to provide a more fuller and truthful picture. Historians are now left with the challenging task of using the limited available sources to recognise these neglected voices and sufferings whilst treading carefully on contentious ground, a task that is by no means easy, but is necessary for individual healing and recognition.

Challenging the Narrative of the War and Its Scholarship

The psychological effects of the Korean War are not explored to their full potential by historians and Koreanists, and even scholars who push for a greater civilian voice in studies of the Korean War recognize the the difficulty in giving complete recognition to the horrors and continued suffering.7)Su-kyoung Hwang, “Speaking from Ground Zero: The Bombing of North Korea in 1950,” Critical Asian Studies 50 (2018): 591-614. Su-kyoung Hwang spearheaded this new line of study, and her work can be used as a basis to investigate even deeper. Hwang mentions briefly how interviews with war survivors can fail due to psychological trauma; it is this aspect that historians need to grasp and explore more intensely and extensively.8)Su-kyoung Hwang, Korea’s Grievous War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 16.

Research on the impact of other air wars like those of World War Two mainly reference three different psychological strands: morale, panic, and survival instincts. Each caused both physical and psychological damage. These strands need to be explored in relation to the Korean War, as evidence suggests that not only were they somewhat ignored during the Cold War but may still be so.

With the prevailing narratives of the Cold War, the fight against communism and the desire for world powers to dominate, during the war civilians and their feelings were put on the back burner. American security academics writing during the war asserted that the UN air forces “never intentionally attacked civilians” in Korea, though they still celebrated the psychological impact of bombs. Evidence suggests officials knew full well of the damage to civilian life they were causing, yet the ferocity of their bombing campaigns did not dissipate in any way.9)Further details on bombing intensity and its impact on civilian life see Hwang, “Speaking from Ground Zero”: 604-5.

Monica Felton on the front page of the British newspaper the Daily Mail on December 2, 1952. | Image: Wikicommons

In an attempt to cover up innocent civilian harm, civilian experience did not feature much in Cold War documentation, with only a few international war correspondents paying attention. Documents held in the British National Archives demonstrates this trend. We find an abundance of sources on the military situation in Korea with little to no comments on civilians. Certainly, this may be due to British relations with the UN, but the fact that a select few individual correspondents like Monica Felton were worried about the civilian situation to the extent that she risked her political career to document it does show that the civilian situation was worth at least some mention.10)Monica Felton, That’s Why I Went (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1953).

An archival box entitled “Experience in Korean Operations” may be thought to include some discussion of soldier interaction with civilians, even if combat was the initial reason for the documentation.11)London: The National Archives (TNA), Special Report of Experience in Korean Operations, Far Eastern and South East Asia, Adam 116/6231, Experience in Korean Operations Historical Survey, September 15, 1952. Yet instead, the document just discussed statistics of the aircrew lost in fighting and the air situation between July 1951 and June 1952, commenting about the enemy’s “great aggressiveness” due to the establishment of a new Manchurian air base. There was no mention of potential civilian casualties.

In a hunt for documents on the civilian situation in Korea, the British National Archives tends to yield up parliamentary questions, including those from Emry Hughes trying to highlight to the British government the plight of Korean civilians.12)London: The National Archives (TNA), Parliamentary Questions about Damage to Seoul, Far Eastern and South East Asia, FK 1097/3, Hughes on the Peculiar War, March 7, 1951. Hughes failed as his worries about civilian livelihood destruction and death were dismissed, hidden both under the pretence that the government was sending monetary aid and that the situation itself was hard to quantify.13)London: The National Archives (TNA), Parliamentary Questions about Damage to Seoul, Far Eastern and South East Asia, FK 1097/4, Mr Morrison in Reply to Hughes, March 21, 1951. Caution must cause question here about monetary aid and whether this was to cover up the damage and destruction that the UN was causing and in turn potentially pushing civilian suffering underground.

The victims themselves also did not document their experiences and the subsequent impacts. This was partly due to the collective experience of such horrors and the following political suppression of speaking out against the South Korean government in the post-war years. Accordingly, the victims were forced to live with their pain silently and adopt the forced narrative that Seoul created, painting all Korean War violence as a product of communist aggression.14)Jeon Seung-Hee, “War Trauma, Memories, And Truths: Representations of the Korean War in Pak Wan-so’s Writings and In ‘Still Present Pasts’,” Critical Asian Studies 42 (2010): 623-51. So whilst we have some sources on civilian experience we need to be cautious about their provenance. In essence, the war narrative dominated and let individual voices fade away behind it.

Imogen Bird is a history graduate from the University of Leeds, with a research focus on Korean War politics of memory and the comfort women issue.

 

1 Alberta Engelbrecht et al., “The Symptomatology of Psychological Trauma in the Aftermath of War (1945–1980): UK Army Veterans, Civilians and Emergency Responders,” Psychological Medicine 49 (2019): 811-18.
2 Subin Park, “Trauma and Depression among North Korean Refugees: The Mediating Effect of Negative Cognition,” International Journal of Environmental and Public Health 15 (2018): 1-10.
3 Ibid: 6.
4 Mee Young Um et al., “Correlates of Depressive Symptoms Among North Korean Refugees Adapting to South Korean Society: The Moderating Role of Perceived,” Social Science and Medicine 131 (2015): 107-13.
5 For other refugee studies see Woo-Teak Jeon, Shi-Eun Yu, Young-A Cho and Jin-Sup Eom, “Traumatic Experiences and Mental Health of North Korean Refugees in South Korea,” U.S. National Library of Medicine 5 (2008): 213-20.
6 Brendan Wright, “Civil War, Politicide, and the Politics of Memory in South Korea, 1948-1961,” Ph.D thesis, University of British Columbia (2016), 5.
7 Su-kyoung Hwang, “Speaking from Ground Zero: The Bombing of North Korea in 1950,” Critical Asian Studies 50 (2018): 591-614.
8 Su-kyoung Hwang, Korea’s Grievous War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 16.
9 Further details on bombing intensity and its impact on civilian life see Hwang, “Speaking from Ground Zero”: 604-5.
10 Monica Felton, That’s Why I Went (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1953).
11 London: The National Archives (TNA), Special Report of Experience in Korean Operations, Far Eastern and South East Asia, Adam 116/6231, Experience in Korean Operations Historical Survey, September 15, 1952.
12 London: The National Archives (TNA), Parliamentary Questions about Damage to Seoul, Far Eastern and South East Asia, FK 1097/3, Hughes on the Peculiar War, March 7, 1951.
13 London: The National Archives (TNA), Parliamentary Questions about Damage to Seoul, Far Eastern and South East Asia, FK 1097/4, Mr Morrison in Reply to Hughes, March 21, 1951.
14 Jeon Seung-Hee, “War Trauma, Memories, And Truths: Representations of the Korean War in Pak Wan-so’s Writings and In ‘Still Present Pasts’,” Critical Asian Studies 42 (2010): 623-51.

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